Music by VICE

Daniel Johnston Saved My Life

The Texas songwriter's music has guided me through my own small-town anxieties and mental health struggles.

by Patrick Marlborough
09 October 2017, 9:11pm

I am sitting backstage with Daniel Johnston before his show at The Town Hall in New York City, one of many stops in his Hi, How Are You? tour, a string of dates that has been billed as his last.

If I hadn't gotten up to pee during the pre-show screening of the 2005 documentary "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" I wouldn't have noticed that my phone was on airplane mode instead of silent, and I would have missed the messages from Daniel's brother Dick, who serves as his manager, inviting me backstage. Five nights ago I was home in Australia. Now I am battling jetlag and trying not to cry as I watch Daniel smoke and knock back Cokes. That's because Daniel Johnston saved my life.

I first heard Daniel Johnston in a listening booth in 78 Records in my hometown of Perth, Western Australia. I had read bits and bobs about him in Rolling Stone and mid-2000s music blogs, but that day I picked up the album Yip/Jump Music on the strength of Daniel's album art alone: a stark black and white marker pen sketch of a big-headed baby, with curling font like a poster bill for an old vaudeville show. Being a gawky 16 year old 'singer-songwriter' in the grip of a Bob Dylan-inspired obsession with the open road, I skipped to the track "Speeding Motorcycle."

There was a brief whirring of tape static before this sudden bright hubcap flash of chord organ and broken croak shot out: "speeding motorcycle, won't you change me?" It lifted, accelerated, took off, and what began as a teenage lament soon veered into a heart-thumping, key-smashing manic drive.

In Daniel's fragile "woo-hoos," I heard the echo of a madness that felt uncomfortably familiar. Then living with a handful of undiagnosed mental illnesses, Daniel conveyed a distant otherness in his music. And his mode of thinking synced seamlessly with my own—elliptical and peculiar, sprinkled with off kilter references and cartoon playfulness, all drifting above something much darker and unknowable. I listened to the album three times through right there in the store, then bought every Daniel Johnston record they had.

Perth breeds a peculiar kind of madness. The world's most isolated capital city, stuffy and conservative, it has an outlet mall soul that is hard to outpace. Watching The Devil and Daniel Johnston for the first time was a shattering experience. The home-movie memories of Daniel's small-town suburban upbringing, the haunting presence of place and nostalgia in his songs, bled easily into my own self image as an odd kid in a straightlaced place.

Daniel's basement studio—in which he churned out illustrations, films, and malformed pop-hits, all while buoyed by his nurturing but confused middle-class parents—was an eerie mirror of my own self-appointed savant-cum-uselessly dependent-son existence. I would sing "Devil Town" to myself while frantically sorting books by "author relationship" and "vibe," obsessively writing songs or jokes about things like the assassination of President McKinley or N64 expansion packs. I was a seemingly gregarious kid, I was smiling through my own personal hell.

Daniel's positioning of himself as a victim—be it in relation to his family, his hometown, or his unrequited love "Laura"—appealed to me as a young man similarly grasping at excuses for his stagnancy. Daniel sang of the "Big Business Monkeys" who could only tell the kind of jokes that put other people down, and I would nod in agreement, similarly feeling that some vague They was the reason my wheels were spinning in place. Like Daniel half-heartedly working as a McDonald's busboy, I felt that society's norms were frustratingly tedious and out of my grasp.

Around this time, I started writing for my university's paper. My first big gig came when Daniel Johnston was announced as an artist at Laneway Festival. Through a combination of obsessive wanting and bullshitting, I got in touch with Dick Johnston who arranged for me to interview Daniel over the phone at his home in Texas. Starstruck to the point of stupidity, I clumsily asked him about The Beatles and his songwriting process: "I take a phrase and I say it over and over until it is a song," he told me.

At the festival I hung out backstage with Daniel, who sat smoking and smiling as he read the vintage Fantastic 4 comics I'd found for him a day earlier. He covered John Lennon's "Isolation" with such crystalline intensity that it drowned out Mumford and Son's middling whelping at the nearby main stage. Meeting Daniel set something off in me. I felt it—lucky stars in my eyes.

The author and Daniel Johnston in 2010.

There's a scene in The Devil and Daniel Johnston where Daniel, in an old tape recording, is reading the description of manic-depression from the DSM. He excitedly bounces through the passage: "He is over-active and over talkative. The ideas come so rapidly that he jumps from one topic to the other. Distractibility is a common feature."

Daniel was still home base for me as a songwriter, and as I began to work more as a critic I began to grow weary of descriptions of his work as lo-fi, raw or worst of all, naïve. To me, there was a structural complexity in Daniel's music that may have been felt simply because it played on my OCD thought rivulets and developing autistic tics.

The song "Despair Came Knocking" was a sparse track in which staccato guitar descended the fretboard like a janky off-step ladder into the grey well of depression. Scratchy vocals and rustling overdubs didn't make this lo-fi to me but positively verbose: what was a soft song rang out like cop sirens, or madhouse dorm alarms.

What some call "naivety" is actually a sublime aptitude for distillation. Daniel Johnston is both captive and capturer of a hot white essence. To call it raw or reduce it to lo-fi is to overlook Daniel's skill as an psalm-smith. These were the hyperbolic thoughts that would loop in the 8-track of my mind before treatment.

"There you have it," Daniel says after describing his diagnosis. "I'm a manic depressive with grand illusions."

There is a moment in the documentary where Daniel is asked if it is harder to write songs now that he's medicated. "It's groggy," he says, and then invents a little fractured ditty on the spot.

Similarly, after I began medication the songs in my head dried up. It almost strikes me as funny that I stopped obsessing over Daniel's music as soon as I was put on meds. That connectedness I felt to his spectrum of selves was severed by a colorful handful of capsules and scripts. The only song that affected me was "Worried Shoes," which whispers like a carousel dirge for the longings and hang-ups of a depressive mind spinning on an axis of self recrimination. On my first run of meds I lost my yip and my jump.

You rebuild yourself around your treatment, and if you are lucky like I was, you'll have someone there to help. You're essentially reforming yourself while putting down the foundation for an entirely new 'other.' It takes effort.

I bought the person who put me on the path to treatment a complete set of Coptic markers. She drew wildly gorgeous comics and illustrations that reminded me of Daniel. At the time, I still followed the Daniel Johnston newsletter, and I spent hours ogling his art, fantasizing of a room full of similar cartoons from the two disparate minds that meant the world to me. We played Daniel's iPad game/album "Space Ducks" a lot around then.

We'd sit in bed, me in a fog, her drawing, and listen to Daniel's album 1990 (which, as it happens, is the year of my birth). That record was Daniel's first studio album, his first collection of songs that were not self-produced and self-released on cassette tapes. It was recorded in fits and starts, the production circling the drain of Daniel's worsening mental health. Even the name 1990 speaks to his struggle: it was originally meant to be released in 1989.

The boyish Daniel who drew the black and white illustrations that adorn the covers of his early tapes (the ones that first caught my eye) is all but gone on 1990. In his place is a stark and mature figure, one that recognizes himself, if only just. The songs are pared back and essential, the impish creaks are replaced with steady ballasts of earned sadness.

In "Some Things Last A Long Time" Daniel plays the piano as if it's a loved one rehearsing a eulogy on the bus-ride to a care-home. He tumbles down passages like "the things we did/I can't forget" and then "some things…last…a lifetime" like a fiery preacher ready who lost the cloth for the bottle. The faith is still there, it's still being challenged, but its song is unwavering.

In these songs and in the view they gave me of my loved ones' care and worry was a marker-inked roadmap to survival. I heard them dimly in the midst of depression and prescription drugs.

Mental illness or not, we all deal with our own devil. Last year I hit the curb hard, just skimming self-obliteration. But I bounced back as a self-care enthusiast. Survival stopped feeling like a burden or a chore and became more of a healthy habit, if mainly for the sake of those around me.

I changed meds. I changed treatment. The goalposts of diagnosis were shifted, yet again. But in the space that treatment and self-care afforded me—and in the shift away from mood stabilizers—I started hear familiar sounds: the thumping chord organ in the parents' basement of my unconscious. Songs came back.

And so did Daniel. Coming out the other end of a breakdown you can look back at your past self and see a stranger—an unknowable mask. But you can reach out and snatch a mixtape from them every now and again. So at 26 I fell back into the songs that buoyed me at 16. In them I saw the hurt, humor, and hurry through a rear view mirror. That or laid out in front of me as obstacles that were, now at least, recognizable. Manageable.

Now I live my broken dreams. Daniel's songs became mantras these past 11 or so months. I listen to "The Sun Shines Down On Me" from Don't Be Scared whenever I feel myself slipping:

I'm getting closer to the fact
I've turned on my silly dreams
And I'm walking down that lonely road
And my heavy load I didn't bother to bring it

And the sun shines down on me
I fell like I deserve it
And the sun shines down

I'd been umm-ing and ah-ing about moving to New York for years. When I heard Daniel was doing one of his final shows there four days after my 27th birthday, I made the leap.

The author and Daniel Johnston in 2017/Photo by Jung Kim.

When Daniel took the stage at the cavernous midtown theater Town Hall the audience burst into wild applause. I burst into tears. I smelt of his cigarettes, and when he began playing "Speeding Motorcycle" I was transported back to my 16-year-old awestruck self in 78 Records, my 19-year-old self sitting in his smoke and comic books in my first ever assignment as a writer, and the many splintered selves that had left, died, and returned to me in the years since. Daniel still performs with that sublime balance of fragility and unrepentant might. His hands shake uncontrollably, he flips over his lyric sheets and the band—comprised of members of Pere Ubu, Cibo Matto, among others—must play around him.

I can't say if this is Daniel Johnston's last tour. Backstage, he wasn't particularly talkative and his hands shook badly. My mother frequently asks me "how is that musician you love? The one you met?" and I simply say he is Daniel Johnston, and that in itself is a marvelous thing.